Advent 1: The Advent of our God

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The Advent of our God
Our prayers must now employ,
And we must meet him on his road
With hymns of holy joy.

The everlasting Son
Incarnate soon shall be :
He will a servant’s form put on,
To make his people free.

Rev. John Chandler, The Hymns of the Primitive Church (London: John W. Parker, 1837), Number 36, pp. 39-40.

Advent invites us to both remember historical events leading up to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and to anticipate and participate in the continuous incarnation and encounter with God.

The above hymn encapsulates in just these two short verses key themes for this season:

  • As God moves towards us we also ‘must meet him on his road’
  • Incarnation is about service within a specific context
  • Incarnation brings freedom within a specific context

…more anon…

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Book Review: Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on humiliation, terror and the politics of enemy-love

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Illustrator Benjamin Harris [1] 

David Benjamin Blower’s Sympathy for Jonah is a slim but by no means a light read. It is an elegant and succinct work of profound poeisis; the artistic creation of a powerful imaginative lens which dives deep into the narrative of the book of Jonah and emerges with some paradigm-shifting reflections on this very familiar but often under understood story.

Whilst not a read for the faint-hearted, by David’s own admission, “Only when we are shocked, horrified, and unmade by the story of Jonah can we begin to imagine that we have understood it” (Epilogue, p57), it is a book imbued with the hope-filled vision that Love’s creative resistance, insistence and interruptive power will manifest again and again “awkward pauses in time in which repentance becomes possible and another world imaginable” (p55).

The book opens with a real time explosion- the recent bombing by Islamic State Militants of Jonah’s alleged shrine in Mosul dramatically connects by way of a twist of explosive wire and a BBC camera this ancient story and the contemporary reader. As the “flameless puff of gray dust” (xvi) settles, the reader is plunged into a disorienting sea of shanties and dirges, monsters of the deep and humiliations. David invites the reader to consider “why is the image of a man on his knees in the belly of a whale so compelling to us?” (p4) His chapter exploring the ‘episode in the whale’ ends with the warning stage whisper: “God help the revolution that has not first known humiliation” (p.10)

In Sympathy for Jonah David has attempted a somewhat Ricoeurian[2] resuscitation of traditional narrative in order to help us imagine and reconnect with a way of being present in and to our world which moves us hopefully into the future. He resolutely goes about the task of pushing the mythic fish tale off the sandbar of unimaginative, modern speculation and back into the mysterious depths. David then proceeds to tackle three key areas: our judgements about why Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah (was he really racist?), our beliefs about why he ended up in the belly of a large fish (is God really unkindly punitive?) and lastly our understanding of what those 3 days ‘inside’ were really about? (was it really just alternative transport?).

Sympathy for Jonah is an impactful read and its theological location is firmly in the heartland of radical non-violent love of Other. Jonah is a story of subversion- a literal ‘turning from below’ and David has taken its timeless message and enlivened it with a teacher’s attention to truth and application, a counsellor’s reflection on the inward and outward journey of reconciliation and a prophet’s call to an extraordinary type of non-violent, restorative justice:

Only by following him into the whale’s belly, by earnestly undergoing the death-and-resurrection of his baptism, and by allowing ourselves also to be unmade and dismantled, dislodged from the structures and obligations of the current order, and empowered with a strength to love that goes beyond ourselves, only then can we begin to adopt the Jonaic practice, the way of the cross and the call of the gospel: to go to the terrible other in search of the image of God.” (David Benjamin Blower, 2016, Epilogue, 57)

As David reminds us, “The book of Jonah is short. It takes up less than two pages of the Bible” (p.2) and though Sympathy for Jonah is also a short book the images it conjures speak thousands of words. In his Forward, Ched Myers draws attention to the bigger picture which David Blower’s reading of Jonah paints; the calling to journey towards the reconciliation of all things: “Ultimately, if humanity is to survive, the murderous logic of empire must be turned around. And nothing less is God’s will for history.” (Ched Myers, Forword, xi). David’s reading of Jonah insists that at key moments we need to be interrupted, however inconvenient, to be stopped in our tracks to examine whether we are living the narrative of empire or of the upside-down kingdom of Heaven: “One day there will be an interruption, and imperial time will stop as it has done many times before, and everyone will wait for it to start up again, but it won’t. It finally won’t be able to fool itself into being anymore, and all its machinery will be hammered into something good and beautiful, or thrown into the fire. And then we will know that the world to come is finally here.” (Blower, 55)

I highly recommend this book. It is at times a disturbing read-empire, domination, cruelty and violence are disturbing themes after all, but it carries profound prophetic relevance for the times in which we live.

Endnotes

[1] Illustrator, Benjamin Harris’ website

[2] The Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur develops his ethical hermeneutic around the importance of reading and meaningfully connecting our past and its traditions with our present in order to bridge with integrity into the future: “The entire present is in crisis when expectancy takes refuge in utopia and tradition congeals into a dark residue” (Time and Narrative Vol. III, p. 235)

[3] Author David Benjamin Blower’s website 

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Empathic Leadership – Getting in touch with our true selves

ma_empathic_wpMy last blog post considered the importance of context – connecting with the wisdom of understanding the place, culture, language, and the struggles and joys of relationships, which contribute to making each and every place unique and special.

Further wisdom dictates that our actions within any given context be rightly motivated and take account, wherever possible, of the impact they have on those who inhabit that context and their wider environment.

Whether consciously or not, our actions (and non-actions) do carry influence, and one of the key elements of the MA programme at ForMission college is the provision for students to reflect (inner and outer) on the influence they carry and how their interface with others is conditioned by their actions, attitudes, and those subtle, yet profound, motivations. Motivations are tell-tale signs of our character and our theology; what and who we truly value become evident.

Scripture frequently prefaces Jesus’ miracles with the words, ‘…he had compassion on him/her/them’. I suggest that an important element of right behaviour and good actions is the need to be ‘affected’ by others. In other words, to be able to imagine how ‘the other’ feels or thinks; to read the signs of distress or the needs (often silently communicated) that draw us to respond with compassion. Another way of articulating this is ‘empathy’; the essence of moving beyond ourselves to respond to those we are in contact with, and which compels us to engage with an appropriate action, or with wise words, or sometimes needing to simply listen attentively and re-assure.

The above inevitably requires leadership to be as much about connecting with and empowering others to move forward in their character-growth and fruitfulness as it is about directing and vision-casting ‘from the front’. There are many styles and approaches to leadership, of course, but a powerful Christ-like model is one where empathy is practised and valued. This is, I would also suggest, an increasingly-lost art, not least amongst us men. Our culture showers us with many voices and perspectives, yet that moment of reflection casting our own competitive desires to one side, enables us to tap into those empathic resources that are abundant within us.

Roman Krznaric’s stimulating book, Empathy – Why It Matters, And How To Get It should be a must-read for any course on leadership. His research leads him to assert that not only is empathy as much a male quality as a female one, but that it can and should constantly be cultivated and exercised. Responding to a need with true compassion, as Jesus did, is likely to make our actions not only more e/affective, but more Christ-like; getting in touch with our homo empathicus draws out our essence without the ego getting a say!

Krznaric talks about ‘outrospection’ as a mode of thinking that helps to keep us healthily-balanced, to move beyond our tendencies toward selfishness and develop our cognitive empathy towards others; this video illustrates it well.

As Jesus showed us, let’s drink deep from God’s well of wisdom, that our thinking and actions might be truly compassionate and of real benefit to others. Empathy is one of the greatest gifts of good leadership and a key ingredient for social transformation at both individual and corporate levels.

This post was originally published on ForMission’s website at http://formission.org.uk/empathic-leadership-getting-in-touch-with-our-true-selves/

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Global Compassion… Inside Out?

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts… Colossians 3:12 (ESV)

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Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, is best known for furthering our understanding of nonverbal behavior. He was also the specialist advisor behind Pixar’s widely popular movie Inside Out,  which cleverly explores how the 5 emotions of joy, sadness, disgust, anger and caution shape and influence memories and behaviour. The following video gives an interesting insight and review:

There is an enormous amount of research and focus on how we can become more effective compassionate, humane and joyful. How can we understand and engage ourselves and others in a way which enables us to be the best possible version of ourselves? From neuroscientists to social engineers, social justice activists to wellness coaches, religious teachers to spiritual advisers, there is an intentional pursuit of becoming the best we can be in order to make the world a better place. Below is an inspiring talk given by Lyn White, the Australian animal rights advocate whose primary impulse from an early age was to ‘become the best version’ of herself. Sadly, she found inspiration neither in the Church nor in her school to spur her on. She says this:

On reflecting on humankind’s extraordinary, in fact, incredible achievements don’t you think it is astonishing that we haven’t achieved something as simple as living in peace?… It seems that little is invested into finding a cause and a cure for the greater societal dis-ease which underpins violence whether in the family, in the home, on the street or between countries…

The Dalai Lama (whose recent book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World I reviewed here), has recently collaborated with Dr. Paul Ekman on the Developing Global Compassion project and together they have produced webisodes of their discussions here, reviewing topics such as unbiased compassion, why some people have global (distal and inclusive) compassion, whether compassion is genetically inherited or learnt, intelligence and compassion and so on. These and other projects are attempting to help move us forward as a human race, to engage us in a more hopeful, collaborative vision of the future; to become the best possible version of ourselves. There is certainly no lack of intentionality, but how far does this go in truly healing us, in creating peace and ensuring justice?

The biblical journey of becoming whole begins, as do many modern ones, with an act of recognition; in scriptural language this is framed as repentance. Recognition is an awareness that a breach (a gap) has taken place (opened up) which has alienated us from ‘the best version of ourself’. The biblical narrative indicates that this breach is one which alienates us from God, from ourselves, from others and from the rest of Creation. Many of us do not recognise (that act of recognition I referred to earlier) the extent of this breach and we thus limit the extent to which we become the ‘best version of ourselves’ in our context.  Biblical language can sometimes sound archaic and irrelevant in our modern world, but I like the concept of The Fall for 2 reasons; firstly, because it suggests that we are all in this together-it has corporate significance and secondly, because it suggests that we can get up again! But first, the act of recognition. The Bible refers to this act of recognition in a number of ways: as being like a sleeper waking up,  or as seeing clearly-as if scales have fallen from our eyes; becoming acutely aware and having a new perspective which changes the way we see ourselves, others around us, the natural world and God. This new perception impacts our behaviour, the way we treat ourselves and others, the way we treat animals and the whole of creation in fact. This is a process of becoming the ‘best version of ourselves’ that we can be.

But, the biblical narrative also indicates that we need assistance in this process of recognition and change. The apostle John in his gospel account connects Jesus’ words with this desire to be the ‘best version of ourselves’ in chapter 15:5: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’. The apostle Paul a very religious man and punctilious in terms of doing the right thing, also acknowledged that he had ‘nothing apart from Christ’ (Philippians 3:5-8).

This ‘remaining in Christ’ is also part of the act of recognition; it is the turning towards, in faith, the example of the best version of ourselves. Paul speaks of this  as a transformative process in 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

There is a great mystery in this recognition…indeed it is surely a matter of faith. Do we have the faith that enough of us will recognise the glory that we can become? Jesus himself asked

And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?   tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

 

 

 

 

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Book Review:Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama

 

[This review of Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama was originally published in Bulletin No 38, March 2012 BIAMS Journal]

The core theme of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s latest book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World is that humanity, as a whole, must become more internally ethically-motivated by undergoing a more rigorous ‘education of the heart’. His words ‘The longer I live, and the more I reflect on humanity’s problems and achievements, the more convinced I become that we have to find a way of thinking beyond religion altogether…’ suggest that this ‘education of the heart’ requires a universalist mindset where religion must open its own heart and cooperate in the task of global ethical conscientisation beyond the strictures of its own particular dogma (if necessary) if humanity is to flourish and indeed, survive.

Philosophically-grounded in the Dalai Lama’s own spiritual tradition of Mahayana Buddhism this book is nonetheless very accessible and readable. He describes our ‘inner spiritual core’ which predisposes us to compassion, kindness and altruism as being like water – essential to life. This, he believes, is distinct from ‘religion-based spirituality’ which is culturally-learned and, like tea, is not essential to life but does greatly enhance it, in the same way that tea enhances the enjoyment of water. Thus, the book takes as its starting point the concept of ‘natural spirituality’ as a logical basis for a shared secular ethical framework.

The book is divided into two parts; the first part presents the Dalai Lama’s vision and rationale for a global secular ethic. Set against the briefly-sketched backdrop of global war, poverty, environmental degradation and the challenges of unlimited capitalist growth in an increasingly interconnected world, he underscores the essential unity of both humanity’s common needs and experience of life (rooted in a briefly explored theory of the mind). His contention is that this biological unity should transcend any distinctions of culture, religion or politics in the quest for developing a globally-espoused set of secular ethics rooted, not in the European tradition of anti-theism and religious antagonism but rather in the Indian tradition of religious tolerance.

The second part of the book turns to address in more detail the practical task of ‘educating the heart through the training of the mind’ as a means to cultivating and maintaining a more ethical mind-set based on ‘principles of inner self-regulation [which] promote those aspects of our nature [which are] conducive to our own well-being and that of others.’ (p.18). The rationale and practice of cultivating mindfulness and other core values such as patience, contentment and generosity whilst at the same time dealing with destructive emotions such as anger, competitiveness and selfishness are simply described accompanied by anecdotal illustrations. The book closes with a chapter describing the art and discipline of meditation as a vital transformative tool which the reader is enjoined to practise little and often in order to ‘become[a] more compassionate human being.’ (p.183)

Beyond Religion speaks urgently and practically of the need to develop a more rigorous global ethical consciousness. The Dalai Lama invokes our ultimate unity as reasoning, biological beings as sufficient reason to mobilise for the common good and affirms the ‘water’ of our natural spirituality as the medium through which we may cultivate ethical flourishing. His writing is sincere and littered with scientific rationales, replete with homilies and proverbial wisdom and is unashamedly practical in his orientation. Yet, the book retains as its core, the serious academic thesis that humanity needs to move towards a future of ‘being’ which is both tolerant of the particular flavours of religion and culture and which affirms, uncompromisingly, the cultivation of mind-sets which are most likely to promote life and happiness for all. Of particular note is the Dalai Lama’s insistence that compassion must be the foundational element of ethical action to promote justice. In much the same vein of thought (though in considerably less depth and detail) as the Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff[1] (who maintains that love and justice in their truest forms are inseparable), the Dalai Lama insists that ‘the exercise of justice, far from being at odds with the principle of compassion, should be informed by a compassionate approach” (p.64).

Readers may be disappointed if they are looking for a deeper analysis of the unethical ‘corporate’ mind-sets which predispose to structural injustice or the imbalances of power inherent in institutionalised religion, politics and government which corrupt and pervert the course of justice; the Dalai Lama’s treatment of such issues is entirely secondary to his focus on the cultivation of individual ethics. As such, it is a book which is rooted in the conviction that justice flourishes slowly, but surely, in the disciplined path of education – of both mind and heart of each individual.

[1] Wolterstorff, N., (2011) Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

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Location, Location, Location…

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This is the mantra, so we are told, that drives the intrinsic value of our homes. Whilst, we could debate the appropriateness of this, such an idea could be applied to theology too.

Recent decades have seen the rapid development of contextual theology(ies), thanks largely to the emergence of thinking from the Global South. This has attempted to root theological and missiological discussion in the local context, providing a helpful challenge to more theoretical expressions of classical Western theology. The tendency for objective ‘one-size fits all’ logic influenced by rational scientific thought since the Enlightenment has been gradually eroded as forms of Liberation theology (Peru/Brazil), Koyama’s water-buffalo theology (Japan) and Mbiti’s African theology have emerged, to name just a few. These new theologies have challenged not only the assumed supremacy of Western (European/North American) thinking, but sought to ‘earth’ understanding into the ‘here and now’ of the local context.

The MA programme at ForMission College gives credence to these developments through emphasis in studying local contexts and ‘reading’ the local before rushing to apply biblical principles. This bottom-up approach is a welcome antidote to the loftier, and, at times, unhelpful top-down construction that elements of classical theology have encouraged.

And what might some of these local issues be?

Contemporary immigration in the UK gives the church opportunity to show loving acceptance and warm welcome, as well as delegitimise cold and oppressive attitudes so often fostered by the media. Secondly, economic inequality in the UK’s cities is rampant and a recipe for social dislocation and conflict, so promoting simple and creative life-affirming lifestyles becomes part of the churches’ prophetic function. Thirdly, the Gospel of love and truth needs new forms of expression within the plethora of ideologies and worldviews we encounter today. Secularism, consumerism, pluralism and multiculturalism make for a lively context in which to live and breathe – our voice is one of many, but our actions can be unique.

As we consider a city such as Birmingham in April 2016, observation will demonstrate that effective missional engagement stimulated by contextually-aware expressions of black/Asian theology and regenerative ecologically—sustainable urban theology can reap positive rewards in helping connect the church with the communities around it.

So much like our own homes…missional theology today is very much about location, location, location!

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This post is the first in a series briefly highlighting three key dimensions as to how the church might be better equipped to engage effectively in reaching 21st Century Britain. These three dimensions touch on, where we are (the contextual dimension), discussed above, who we are (the empathic dimension) to be explored next month, and where we are going (the hope dimension), to follow in June.

These dimensions are best understood within an overarching framework which is the biblical vision of shalom – or in other words, being sign-bearers of God’s reign ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

This post was first published on ForMission’s website blog here

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Just War theory obsolete?

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A painting of the Great Mahabharata war

Deep in history, the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, engages one of the first written discussions of a ‘just war’ including a contextualised discussion which develops criteria around ‘just cause’ and ‘just conduct’ which are appropriate to the context of war. Interestingly, it also references attempts at reconciliation to avoid war. In the epic, one of five ruling brothers asks if the suffering caused by war can ever be justified the dialogue with his brothers goes on to discuss ideas such as proportionality (chariots cannot attack cavalry, only other chariots, no attacking people in distress etc.), just means (no poisoned or barbed arrows), just cause (no attacking out of rage), and fair treatment of captives and the wounded.

Howard Hensel explores in considerable depth both Asian and Western theories of Just War in his book ‘The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Legitimate use of Military Force’ (2010). Western just war theory is a tradition that has developed a set of criteria to evaluate whether and under what conditions the use of violence can be considered morally justifiable. Based on the writings of fourth century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, it was later articulated in depth by 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and is today outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

Conflict and war is deeply embedded in the human experience of co-habitation of Planet Earth but how we shape war and correlated responses to conflict can change. In her essay ‘The roots of war‘, Barbarah Ehrenreich notes that:

Wars produce war-like societies, which, in turn, make the world more dangerous for other societies, which are thus recruited into being war-prone themselves. Just as there is no gene for war, neither is there a single type or feature of society — patriarchy or hierarchy — that generates it. War begets war and shapes human societies as it does so.

Next week, 11th-13th April,  delegates will gather in the Vatican to listen to some 80 experts engaged in the research and practice of nonviolent action with the aim of developing a new moral framework that rejects ethical justifications for war.

The Catechism   currently establishes in the section Safeguarding Peace; avoiding war that

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (2309)

In an earlier section, it states:

Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war. (2307)

Next week’s conference will address the issue of whether just war theory remains relevant and sufficient. Organisers set out the radical nature of the task at hand with the statement in their literature to participants that just war teaching:

…can no longer claim center stage as the Christian approach to war and peace… After more than 1,500 years and repeated use of the just war criteria to sanction war rather than to prevent war, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, is rereading the text of Jesus’ life and re-appropriating the Christian vocation of pro-active peacemaking…Emphasizing the need to work for a just peace, the Church is moving away from the acceptability of calling war ‘just,’. While clear ethical criteria are necessary for addressing egregious attacks or threats in a violent world, moral theologians and ethicists should no longer refer to such criteria as the ‘just war theory,’ because that language undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacity for nonviolent conflict.(Conference organisers)

The conference is organised around 4 main themes: Experiences of Nonviolence, Jesus’ Way of Nonviolence, Nonviolence and Just Peace, and Moving Beyond Unending War.

I, for one, am waiting with baited breath to see what emerges out of this conference!

The purveyors of violence are endlessly inventive. From child soldiers to the utter detachment of drones, from crude IEDs to sophisticated bombs, from oil wars to the formation of caliphates, those who use violent means no longer observe rules or boundaries. (Tom Roberts, 2014)

 

Please note:

For sources and more information please click on the highlighted links embedded in the text and to view the main source article in the National Catholic Reporter.

 

 

 

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